Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Monday, Aug. 1, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2016-17 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — In the course of a year, Zoe Douglas went from battling to be in the singles lineup for the University of Iowa women’s tennis team to being the 92nd-ranked player by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
“I came and was in-and-out of the lineup at the beginning,” said Douglas, a junior from Papworth Everard, England. “That makes you want to work harder and do everything you can to get better and prove how much you can do to help the team.”
Douglas made her Hawkeye dual debut in singles on Valentine’s Day in 2015, winning a straight-set decision over Montana’s Catherine Orfanos. She went 4-1 in six matches at No. 6 singles before going 1-0 at No. 5 and 1-3 at No. 4.
“By the end of freshman year to move up into the lineup was a great feeling,” said Douglas, who went 8-5 in her first season. “Over the summer I knew I had time to improve and had things to improve on. It drives you because you know you can improve, get better, and get higher in the lineup.”
After earning Iowa’s Most Valuable and Most Improved Player honors as a freshman, Douglas climbed in the Hawkeye lineup and won. She started the spring 7-0 to gain that first career ITA ranking.
“It’s something I never thought of as a possibility to get into the rankings,” she said. “When it came out, I was a bit shocked. I was happy, but it continues to motivate you. You’re like ‘I can keep improving, I can get better.'”
The ranking follows a tennis journey that began when Douglas was a youngster playing with her father. The Douglas’ lived down the road from local tennis courts, and Douglas became fond of the sport.
“My parents said I wouldn’t get off the court,” she said. “I remember going down with my dad all the time and hitting back-and-forth over the net. It started as family fun, socializing, and being active.
“Then you progress as a player and people start to say ‘Oh, your kid is talented.’ Then your mom and dad drive you all around the country to try and get you to where you want to be.”
In high school, Douglas was the No. 1 singles player at Cambridgeshire and the eighth-ranked player in Great Britain. She won a doubles title at the National Road to Wimbledon and was a finalist in three British Grade 2 doubles finals in 2014 and in the National Tour Grade 2 singles 18U competition.
Douglas set her sights on continuing to play in the United States. She traveled to the coasts, visiting Boston and California as a teenager, but she had never been to the Midwest. She didn’t know much about Iowa before visiting.
“When I was younger and at the tennis facility back home, I would see players come to the United States, and I thought that would be awesome,” said Douglas. “In high school, I went on a school trip to America and saw a couple of the colleges and thought they were incredible.
“The facilities and opportunities here are unbelievable.”
Former UI head coach Katie Dougherty connected with Douglas through Tennis Smart, an organization that assists players from England to come to the U.S. There were Skype calls and emails before Dougherty traveled to England to watch Douglas play.
“I came on a visit in August, 2014, and went to an Iowa football game,” said Douglas. “It was great. (Dougherty) gave me an offer, and I couldn’t refuse.”
Douglas has a 24-15 career singles record and a 46-42 doubles record in her first two-and-a-half seasons. She has ascended to the No. 2 spot in Iowa’s singles lineup as a junior and joins with freshman Elise Van Heuvelen to form the top doubles team.
Douglas has come a long way since coming to the University of Iowa.
“I have grown a lot from the beginning,” said Douglas. “When I came here, I was quite young, (she was 17) and I didn’t understand what was going on. I’ve matured on and off the court and that is what has made the difference.
“Now that I am higher in the lineup, I feel great with my game. When I go out there, I know I can do everything I possibly can to get the point for the team.”
First-year head coach Sasha Schmid has been coaching Douglas since August, and she was sold on Douglas from the beginning.
“It quickly became apparent to me that Zoe is a special kid,” said Schmid. “From the minute we started competing in the fall, she has been an excellent competitor and she has a huge heart. That’s something that can’t always be taught by a coach.
“For me to be able to come to this team and find a player that has all of those characteristics; it’s something to build upon and it sets a great foundation for us.”
After a strong first fall under Schmid, Douglas believes the Hawkeyes have potential to make noise in the Big Ten Conference this spring. Iowa is 7-0 as a team — its best start since 2008 — and Douglas is 5-2 in singles and 6-0 in doubles.
“I think it’s going to be a good season,” said Douglas. “I think we’re going to do well in the Big Ten and surprise people and hopefully make the NCAA Tournament.”
Schmid also believes big things are in store for Douglas, but she wants the junior to focus on the process and improve daily.
“She has All-Big Ten honors in her sights,” said Schmid. “I would love to see her make it to the NCAA Tournament with the team. In singles and doubles, she has a great opportunity to qualify as well.”